As a Writer, Do You or (How to Grow Writerly Chest Hair)

When I first started out, the advice I got the most was, “Write what you know.” This did not make much sense to me, since I was in fifth grade, and I wanted to write fantasy. And it’s a good thing I started out writing fantasy because it forces you to figure out the “rules” to your world, which, even if you’re writing a novel set in reality, you still must do.You still twist reality enough to constitute the need for rules. But here I was, 11, writing fantasy, yet people told me to “write what I knew.”

I thought that meant people wanted me to write about my life,which was boring. I might only be able to describe the highlight of my week as a Pokemon card game. Nothing major was happening in my life at the time, nothing I wanted to write about or felt comfortable writing, anyways. But now I see the purpose of the rule. It provides a sort of practice.

If how to describe something mundane, like a cookie or the scenery of a room, you’ll be better at expressing the minutiae of life. Which will make it much easier when you try to tackle larger ideas, you can write them better. When you conceived an immensely complicated but significant idea, you’ll know how to put that idea into words. But you have to start with describing the concrete before you can the abstract. From the concrete, you learn stylistic techniques that will help you in the long run.

The same rule goes for stories. If you begin writing stories about your day, your daily routine– how you bush your teeth and wait for your dog to poop in your neighbor’s lawn during your morning walk– it’s not a waste of time. Not many people many want to read such tedious chronicles of the most basic activities, but this will train you to be able to describe big-set scenes in the future.

Now, if you want to ever get published, you will one day have to write something someone will want to read. When writing without the intent of publication, however, you needn’t worry about the fickle tastes of the readers. Instead, do you. Write about whatever interests you, even if it’s butterflies. Spend pages describing a tin roof or the bark on a tree. In a published novel, this might not fly.

But the honest truth is, you’ll need to write thousands and thousands (hundreds of thousands) of words meant for fiction before writing anything “good.” This is not to demean you. It’s just a fact. Writers must write for a good long time before finding their voice. It’s a sort of writerly puberty, if you’d like to think of it like that. Sure, for a while, you’ll speak high-pitched, but then eventually you’ll get some hair on your chest. You know who had a lot of hair on his chest? Ernest Hemingway. No, seriosuly, he did.

So you spend a lot of time honing your craft, writing whatever you’d like. You must do this before attempting to write for the market or else you’ll start copying others’ styles and stories. You’ll be the writer writing paranormal romances and stories called The Boy with the Penguin Tattoo.

You have to find your voice before really delving into the selling part of writing. And that’s just if you want to get read. But if you’re just starting out, write for yourself, then focus on others. Write about the little things that worry you, then you’ll have practice to tackle the huge existential questions you might face in the future.

For the record, I would definitely read The Boy with the Penguin Tattoo.

About derekberry

Derek Berry is a novelist, poet, and student located in Charleston, SC.

Posted on November 27, 2011, in Bodily Hair, books, classics, Word Salad, writer, Writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Nice post. I always enjoy your writing. I especially like the “Writerly Puberty.” Good one!

  2. Great tip about the stylistic techniques and looking at smaller details!

  3. And who, may I ask, wouldn’t want to read a dissertation on butterflies or tree bark? 😉

    Great post, Derek. As a woman, I’d prefer to think of my writing as growing into a training bra…

    • If I thought of writing like that… well, I’d probably be able to fill out a bra, so maybe I should go on a diet… but mainly, I think I cannot sympathize with that philosophy.

  4. I always keep telling myself “Scio quid nescio”, so that I can’t write what I know, but what I feel instead.

    • Yes, I tell myself that all time. I am going to nod my head and pretend I understand Latin and am TOTALLY intellectual. My first thought was, “Ooh, does quid mean money like in the UK?” I’m guessing, no.

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